The Government used last month’s Queen’s Speech to announce plans to bring in new laws to outlaw “incitement to religious hatred” and “religious discrimination in the supply of goods and services”. Catholics might be tempted to welcome these proposals without troubling to ask themselves whether they are necessary. But, though they appear harmless, these laws contain unforeseen dangers. The potential problems were graphically illustrated by a recent court case in the Australian state of Victoria.
The case involved an allegation of “religious vilification” brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria against Catch the Fire Ministries. The Council accused two of the Protestant group’s pastors, Daniel Scot and Daniel Nalliah, of “vilifying Islam” during a day-long seminar in March 2002. The seminar dealt with Islamic history, the concept of jihad and whether Islam was compatible with western democracy. Speakers quoted from the Koran and the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which together form the basis of Sharia law. Three Australian converts to Islam were present at the seminar. They reported back to the council, which subsequently sued Catch the Fire Ministries under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Toleration Act.
The council sought damages, a retraction and a “sincere apology”. The pastors were also asked to acknowledge that their remarks at the seminar were inaccurate and to refrain from repeating “statements, suggestions and implications to the same or similar effect”. If such an order were made, any breach would be a contempt of court punishable by imprisonment.
In their defence, the pastors argued – not surprisingly – that the seminar accurately represented Islamic teaching and history. Furthermore, the event was an exercise in free speech and reflected the speakers’ personal religious beliefs.
During the case, it emerged that the Muslim converts had been sent to the seminar by the Islamic Council, with a view to bringing a court case, as both pastors were already known to have strong views regarding Islam and the Sharia. Daniel Scot is a Christian from Pakistan who had fled to Australia to escape persecution. Daniel Nalliah had worked in Saudi Arabia, where the practice of Christianity is a criminal offence.
Much of the case revolved around the Koran and the life of Muhammad. While Mr Scot was giving evidence, he was asked whether he believed that Muslims and Christians prayed to the same God. Hardly a question a court is qualified to decide.
The trial was scheduled to last three days. It actually extended over seven months and the judgment is still awaited. Meanwhile, another interesting case has emerged, this time brought by a witch, who claims that her beliefs have been vilified.
The authorities introduced the “religious vilification” law in Victoria by extending existing race discrimination legislation. This is exactly what is being proposed in Britain.
The argument invariably used to justify the law is that, as Jews and Sikhs are protected by existing race discrimination laws, Muslims or Christians should receive similar protection. This is a superficially attractive argument, but it ignores the fact that Jews are protected not because of their religion but because of their race. Jews can convert to other religions or become atheists, but they still remain Jews. Edith Stein, for example, was a German Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Despite this, she was killed in Auschwitz not on account of her religion, but her race.
There is a fundamental difference between being a member of a racial group and being a member of a religion. Race is something you are and cannot change; religion is something you can choose and change. A Jew who becomes a Christian remains a Jew; a Christian who becomes a Muslim ceases to be a Christian.
Religions rest on ideas and, in a free society, any idea must be open to debate and even ridicule. No one in their right mind would argue that all ideas are equal, but that is the philosophical basis of the Government’s proposals. In the new legislation, the term “religious group” could be stretched to cover every cult and crank, fanatic and fantasist. Satanists and believers in the the second coming of Elvis would be entitled to the same protection as members of mainstream religions.
If the Government’s proposals are brought into force and another Salman Rushdie-type affair were to arise, religious activists could bring a claim for damages against the author and publisher of the book concerned and could demand that they be prosecuted.
Supporters of the proposals also argue that new legislation is needed to protect religious groups from violence and threats. But this is untrue. Everyone is already protected by the ordinary criminal law. Assault is a crime, regardless of whether the victim is black, Muslim, gay or fat. Setting fire to property – whether it be a mosque, church or supermarket – is arson. The use of violent, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards another person is already an offence under the Public Order Act.
The danger of creating special categories of offence is that this may stimulate feelings of divisiveness, lead to special pleading, create “thought crimes” and an unhealthy atmosphere of self-censorship.
Catholics must accept that anyone discussing the Catholic Church is entitled to criticise the Inquisition and the often dubious history of the papacy. Similarly, anyone discussing Islam must be allowed to criticise incidents in the life of Muhammad, such as the execution of 700 Jews of the Qurayzah tribe. Such discussions may well cause distress to many Catholics or Muslims, but that does not mean that questions should not be asked, or that history should be censored. However, Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, stated on Radio 4 in July that he would regard any “defamation of the character of the Prophet Muhammad” as something that should be prosecuted under the new law.
Freedom of speech is a tender plant which can be destroyed by the smothering blanket of well-meaning legislation, just as easily as by the jackboot of despotism. Neither Christians nor Muslims need or should seek the protection of these laws. Christianity survived 300 years of persecution under the Roman Empire, and both Christianity and Islam survived 70 years of atheistic persecution in the Soviet Union. If we believe in freedom, then a law restricting comment on religion is wrong. And, if we truly believe in our faith, such a law is, in the final analysis, unnecessary.
Neil Addison is a barrister in New Bailey Chambers at Liverpool and Preston. He is the author of Harassment Law and Practice. Further details about the case in Australia and the Government’s proposals can be found on his website www.religionlaw.co.uk